Things aren't always what they seem - Lily Lansdown - Part One

Posted 24 June 2016 by Kirsten English

The research in this blog was featured on BBC Family Finders Series 2, Episode 3 (with an appearance by me!)

Have you read my earlier blog about William Ratcliffe? He had to give his son up because he was in domestic service. Well the lady who took in his son also took in another child. This blog is her story.

Child (name kept private) Lansdown was born in 1922. She was taken in by a wonderful lady known to her family as Nanny Humphries. This is what her birth certificate tells us:

  • Birth place: 126 Brook Street, Lambeth
  • Father: Sydney Lansdowne, Music Hall Artist
  • Mother: Lily Lansdowne, formerly Vesta
  • Address: 58 Hercules Road, Lambeth

At first glance this document seems straightforward. Sydney and Lily Lansdown (maiden name - Vesta) had a baby girl. No. Things are not always what they seem.

The first clue to things being not quite right is the address of the birth place. 126 Brook Street was actually the address of Lambeth Infirmary. In the 1920s it was still the norm for children to be born in the home. If they were born in hospital it was often a sign things were not straightforward, i.e. the child was illegitimate. To cover the mother's 'shame' the registrar would put the street address rather than the name of the hospital.

The family knew that the mother had given her child up to pursue a career in theatre and had gone on the star in a musical called the 'Belle of New York'. There was also a story about the mother arriving in a limousine to retrieve her daughter (some 10 years later) with another child in tow.

So it was no surprise that the circumstances of her birth were not what you would expect. And in fact the family did not think the parents had ever married. This was my next task.

‘Vesta’ is quite an unusual surname so if there was a marriage it should have been easy to trace, but there was no record of a marriage. I didn't pursue this as this was what we expected. So I turned to the mother, Lily Vesta. No such person was born in the correct or even widely exaggerated time frame.

As part of my search, I looked in the British Newspaper Archive and started getting hits for a Lila Vesta, a music hall artist. It looked like Vesta was her stage name.

Why would someone put their stage name on a birth certificate?

I found an article about a performance in 1910 at Leamington Spa Theatre of Lockhart's Elephants. At the end of the article it said that Lily Vesta provided a pleasing musical number. I looked into Lockhart's Elephants and found that they travelled Britain and America with their act. Could she have been picked up in America and joined the troupe and travelled to England? There seemed to be no way to verify this. Lily Vesta did not appear on any in or outbound travel records and I was fairly certain this was her stage name anyway.

I searched unsuccessfully for other references to Lily Vesta. So I searched instead for Lily Lansdown, and there she was, playing the lead in the Belle of New York from 1924-25 as it toured Britain. The newspapers articles gave her good reviews and often referred to her as a singer and comedienne. But from 1925 the references stop.

From the Arthur Lloyd website, I found an article on researching your music hall ancestors which directed me to the Stage archive. This is online and searchable for a subscription. So I spent several days in that archive and found countless references to Lily/Lila Vesta from 1929 to 1939 almost all with Bob E Bayes. They toured the country putting on various Music Hall performances.

I also searched for Lily Lansdown and found more references to her in 1924-25 in Belle of New York, and her name listed in The Stage Letters and Publishers Song Notes. And lo and behold I found 2 references to her with the Happy Days company with Syd Lansdown - so he was a music hall artist also. More about him later.

So were Lily Vesta and Lily Lansdown the same person? It seemed likely but Lily was a popular name, we didn't know her real/maiden name and I couldn't find a marriage record for Sydney Lansdown marrying anyone called Lily or any version of that name.

I put together a list of all the references I could find to Lily/Lila Vesta and Lily Lansdown with dates to see if there was any overlap but there wasn't. This strengthened the theory they were the same person and for the years she was in a relationship with Sydney Lansdown, she took his name even if they didn't marry.

Maybe she went back to Vesta in 1929 when they split up?

On a whim I did a search in The Stage for Bob E Bayes and, how exciting, I found a little note saying 'Congratulations on their 3rd wedding anniversary Mr and Mrs Robert Thompson (Bob E Bayes and Lila Vesta)'. I don't know why this hadn't come up on previous searches, but what a result. This meant they married in 1932. But again because we had no idea what her real name was a marriage records search turned up several Robert Thompsons marrying a Lily or Lilian.

I did further searches for Bob E Bayes and found a thread on an Ancestry forum of people also researching him. I got in contact with one person and he had had contact with someone who was a relation of Lily Vesta's brother and knew her maiden name was Lily Simcox, born in West Bromwich. Only someone researching family history can understand how monumentally exciting this was getting!

I'm sure everyone else would think we're mad.

The gentleman I was in contact with sent me some photos of her and Robert Thompson and a newspaper article where she says she grew up in the theatre and her father was a theatre manager. I searched the census records for Lily Simcox and there she was. Lillian Mary Simcox born 1892 in West Bromwich, with the correct brother and her father is listed in the 1891 census as a Bill Inspector. Looking at Arthur Lloyd site I discovered that a Bill Inspector was employed to make sure the Bills (advertising) were put up correctly and then not covered over by other bills. So this all fits with the newspaper article of her being brought up in the theatre.

However the marriage records for Robert Thompson did not have him marrying a Lily Simcox or a Lily Lansdown. It seems likely they definitely did marry otherwise why would there have been congratulations messages in The Stage archive? We know that Robert and Lily Thompson eventually settled in Sunderland where he was from and one of the marriage records was for a Lily Thorn in Sunderland. So I tried to track back from Lily Thorn. Did Lily Simcox marry a 'Thorn' at some stage?

I searched marriage records for Lily Simcox marrying 'Thorn' and found a marriage in 1910 in Leeds to Ambrose Thorn. A search of the papers for Ambrose Thorn showed he was also a music hall artist. Looking in the 1911 census I found Ambrose and Lily Thorn visiting a couple in Harrogate and they are both listed as music hall artists. This meant the marriage of Robert Thompson to Lily Thorn in 1932 was the right one, and also confirmed that Lily did not marry Sydney Lansdown.

So it looked like Lily Simcox with the stage name Lila Vesta, married Ambrose Thorn. Had a relationship with Sydney Lansdown and took his name for a while, had a child with him which she gave up, and then went back to performing as Lila Vesta and eventually married Robert Thompson. But there was something about this that didn't feel right. Based on the evidence available, these were likely conclusions, but instinct is worth taking notice of. I think what didn't fit was that she changed her stage name.

And also the family story of her returning with another child, a boy, didn't fit the information I had about Lily Simcox. I had never found any evidence she had had any more children. Let's leave this on that uneasy note.